HUTUP, India (AP) — In the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, a creaky bus meanders through the winding streets of a small village called Hutup. The fresh scent of manure fills the air as the vehicle inches closer to its destination. The streets are still dark as dawn has yet to break.
At the stroke of 5 a.m., a group of young girls boards the bus, each with a different level of expertise in soccer, ranging from slightly older than toddlers to young women in their early 20s. Some of them are carrying soccer balls.
These young girls are on their way to a vast open field, where they will practice soccer, honing their skills and perfecting their techniques. While the younger ones are eager to improve their ball-handling abilities, the older girls act as coaches and earn money to pay for their education.
For all of these girls, soccer is more than just a sport. It’s an opportunity to defy deeply ingrained gender discrimination prevalent in their rural villages.
“We love playing football as we get to play with only girls and a few boys. Our teachers have told us that if we have any issues, we can solve them through football,” says 13-year-old Pratibha Kumari as she makes her way back home after practice.
Pratibha hinted at the gender-biased perspectives prevailing in India, particularly in rural regions like her hometown in Jharkhand. Shockingly, 12 million adolescent girls in India, almost one in five, have undergone physical violence since turning 15. Moreover, 2.6 million girls between the ages of 15-19 have experienced forced sexual intercourse or sexual abuse, as per the statistics released by UNICEF. In Jharkhand, six out of ten girls are married off before they reach the legal age of 18.
Franz Gastler, the founder of Yuwa, a non-profit organization that educates girls in soccer, affirms that this part of India is often hidden from the rest of the country. “This is India, and unfortunately, this is the norm,” says Gastler, originally from Minnesota. In this area, boys frequently harass girls, and older women have grown up enduring abuse, so they perceive it as an accepted reality.
Yuwa endeavors to empower young girls by demonstrating that they possess the right to choose their life path and concentrate on their education instead of early marriage and starting a family. For many girls, Yuwa has opened up opportunities to travel outside their village for the first time. A few girls have traveled to various parts of India or even to Spain to compete in a soccer tournament. Nearly 300 girls participate in the Yuwa soccer program, while 80 attend the Yuwa School for Girls, informs Gastler. The organization also conducts workshops that cover essential life skills like menstruation and health education and hosts parent meetings. In 2016, Yuwa received over $200,000 in monetary donations, grants, and in-kind contributions from public and private sponsors, according to the financial records of the organization.
Before the soccer practice begins in the early morning, the girls engage in cheerful banter, laughter, and gossip. Here, on the soccer field, their social backgrounds and economic status do not define them. However, as they begin to share their life stories, the hurdles they face become apparent.
One of these girls is Neeta Kumari, 17, who belongs to a family of six children, consisting of five girls and one boy. In Jharkhand State, the vast majority of girls are called kumari, meaning an unmarried girl, until they get married and the title changes. Neeta’s parents continued to have children until they finally had a boy. Her three older sisters were married off at the age of 16 and 17 and never had the chance to finish their education. Today, they are mothers with little hope for their future. Despite this, they wholeheartedly support Neeta’s dream to become a journalist and her passion for soccer.
Neeta expresses her happiness, saying, “I feel very good because my sisters are supporting me.”
After changing out of their soccer gear, including shorts, cleats, and striped socks, the girls come to the small cement school on the Yuwa campus in groups. Some of them arrive just as the morning assembly starts, with their hair still wet from washing it after practice.
At Yuwa, an assembly showcases skits performed by some of the girls in Sadri, one of the many languages spoken in Jharkhand, which is home to 32 indigenous tribes, each with its own distinct culture. Although one-quarter to one-third of the girls at Yuwa are indigenous, the majority speak Sadri at home, according to Rose Thomson, the education director at Yuwa. Even though the school instructs English and Hindi, Thomson believes it’s crucial for the girls to converse in Sadri. She says, “They have the notion that there is a hierarchy of languages: English, Hindi, and then Sadri. They might feel ashamed to speak their mother tongue. We discuss it with them frequently about how they should take pride in it and speak their own language.”
Radha Kumari encountered taunts for playing football. Her family would ask her, “Why are you playing a boy’s sport?” Instead, she was expected to complete her chores and take care of the cattle. Even though she was 12 years old, she had never attended school. Then she heard about Yuwa and the other girls who were going to participate in a tournament in Spain.
At the age of 14, Radha was inspired to follow in the footsteps of her peers and joined a soccer group. She even traveled to Spain to participate in a tournament and has since evolved into a coach. She trains younger girls, instructing them on drills and exercises while simultaneously earning money to finance her education.
By becoming a coach, Radha is demonstrating to other young women that they too can be self-sufficient and earn their own income. She hopes to set an example for her peers and show them that they have the potential to achieve financial independence.
As a result of her experiences, Radha now aspires to become a mechanical engineer. She is captivated by the creativity and beauty evident in the world, from nature to bridges and airplanes. This fascination drives her desire to acquire new skills and knowledge.
“I have a thirst for knowledge,” she remarks.